The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

by William James

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy is a collection of philosophical nonfiction essays written over the course of 17 years (1879–1896) by famed American philosopher and psychologist William James. The volume was originally published in 1897, and it consists of 9 essays and a Preface.

In it, James theorizes on various philosophical concepts such as pragmatism, individualism, determinism, psychology, rationality, empiricism, theism, faith, religion, free will, truth, ethics, and morality. Some of the essays were originally speeches and lectures that he delivered to various Ivy League societies, clubs, and universities. James dedicated the essays to his close friend, American philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Charles Peirce.

James was predominantly interested in religion, faith, and belief, and he even wrote that his essays were targeted to a specific audience which consists of academically inclined individuals who might be appalled at the idea of religion and the existence of God in such an industrial and scientific era. He discusses this in the first four essays of the collection, including the title essay, “The Will to Believe.”

His goal was to, essentially, explain to the readers that it is okay to believe in something without having to justify your faith. He argues that not everything is predetermined or meant to happen; sometimes things might happen by chance. Thus, we shouldn’t believe that the physical world is the only one that can give us the universal truth—instead, we should also believe in the spiritual one. He discusses this theory in "The Dilemma of Determinism."

In "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," "Great Men and their Environment," and "The Importance of Individuals," he focuses on the moral and ethical aspects, as well as the importance of individualism in the modern society.

Finally, he concludes his essays with “On Some Hegelisms,” in which he criticizes Hegel’s philosophy, and “What Physical Research Has Accomplished,” in which he expresses his opinions on physical research.

The publication received generally positive reviews. Many readers praised his informative, descriptive and thought-provoking prose. However, he did receive some criticism as well, mainly because of his somewhat confusing and verbose language.

You can read James' full essay collection here.

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